The High Price of Shark Finning
Authors: Veronica Gordon, Chelsea Murphy, Amber Reilly
University of Massachusetts Amherst
The objective of shark finning: the fin. (Ocean.si.edu)
A long line is cast into the ocean with thousands of hooks lining its 62 mile expanse. When its caster comes back for the line’s contents, they find and toss back albatross, loggerhead turtles, and other sea life until they come upon their goal: the shark. Dragged onto the boat of its captor, the hooked shark is often alive and struggling against its new environment. With a forceful blow to the spine, the shark is paralyzed. The fisherman then swiftly slices each fin off of the shark. And with that, the shark is pushed off of the boat and left to slowly die in the ocean depths.
Shark finning and lack of sustainable population management in Asia are causing major population declines in multiple different species of sharks. Although there are government regulations currently in place regarding shark finning, they lack proper enforcement and contain many loopholes that allow finning to occur, as evidenced by continued population declines (Ward-Paige et al. 2012, pg. 1856). Further steps are slowly being taken towards sustaining populations. Sharks were listed on the endangered species list in 2001, and several states in the U.S. banned the possession of shark products, in turn creating “safe areas” for sharks in the Pacific Ocean (Clarke et al. 2013). And it is not only the U.S. taking charge against this practice; New Zealand, in an effort to save their native species, has recently put a ban on the finning of dead sharks. This accompanies their ban on the finning of live sharks passed in 2009 (Davison 2014).
Shark fin soup is a well established sign of wealth and high social standing in Asia, with the soup being mainly served at upscale events due to its expensive price tag. Food tourism also plays a role in the overall problem; people visit Asia and eat the foreign soup, unaware of its hugely damaging effects on shark populations in our oceanic systems. This is further exacerbated by the myth that a shark’s fins will grow back after being removed (Ward-Paige et al. 2012, p. 1859). Unfortunately, there is a lack of education about the subject and people do not often think about our oceanic systems and the effects that their actions could have on the fragile ecosystem.
By removing sharks, which are apex predators, from our oceans, we are causing an extreme disruption to the oceanic ecosystem. The loss of this predator causes an escalation of prey populations, a subsequent decline in the prey population’s food supplies, and so on, thereby destroying ecological balance. Due to the lack of proper counts during fishing, as sharks are often looked at as a bycatch in large fishing operations, there are few accurate numbers on how many sharks are caught each year. This lack of accurate data poses a problem for conservationists, simply because it does not provide the astounding numbers needed to justify the movement to ban the harvest of sharks (Clarke et al., 2013, p. 198). From the population numbers available, the extinction of multiple shark species will become a reality in only a few years (Verlecar, 2007, p.1080). If the high demand for shark fins does not cease to exist, sharks as we know them will.
Wild shark populations are steadily declining and while efforts to combat shark finning are in place, they will not be effective without a change in not only the restrictions on supply, but a halt in the demand of shark fins. We propose that in order to save declining shark populations, we must stress the ecotourism value of sharks, while also devaluing shark fins through education. We want to begin by educating the Asian public through celebrity and government opposition of shark fin soup. Then we would like to continue with the education of Asia’s youth and international visitors. We would choose to educate Asia’s youth through environmental education programs in schools as well as government endorsed advertisements and documentaries. By educating children to be more conservation minded, it will deter future generations from dependence on shark fins as indicators of high social status. As customs all over the world continue to change, this too can change.
The high price of shark fins is driving the practice of shark finning and causing people to fish at a rate that does not allow for sustainable populations of sharks in the world’s oceanic systems. Shark fins have an exceptionally high export value. According to Verlecar (2007), shark fins can reach up to $700/kg in Asia, making an individual shark worth thousands of dollars (p. 1078). This provides an incentive for the indiscriminate fishing to continue, with high pay off being nearly guaranteed in the current market.
In the context of shark fishing, sharks are caught exclusively to be finned. The majority of the 100 million sharks captured each year are caught solely to be finned because shark fins sell for three times more than bone, and ten times more than meat (Verlecar, 2007, p. 1079). Because the fins of a shark are worth much more than the rest of its body, the rest of the shark’s body is simply thrown back into the ocean, alive. This way their carcass is not wasting valuable space where the highly profitable fins could be.
If a fisherman in the shark finning industry can operate at a high rate of catch and dispose of the body parts that fail to obtain good prices, they can maximize profits. Therefore, sharks are caught without caution or hesitation. This ideal considerably drains the world’s shark populations from the wild. In fact, overfishing for the purpose of shark finning is causing many species of sharks to become endangered. This is mainly because shark populations cannot replenish fast enough to keep up with such fishing rates, as some shark species take many years to reach maturity. At the rate that this finning is occurring, Verlecar (2007) estimates that 20 species of shark will be extinct in 2017 alone (p. 1078).
As stated previously, shark fin soup is an integral part of displaying social status in some Asian cultures. This is especially true in China. Hence, the banning of shark fin soup could be considered an infringement upon not only their beliefs, but also their potential economic gains as fishermen, restaurant owners and employees, and hotel owners and employees. An outright ban would result fishermen being unable to match the profits brought in by such a high-demand product. The restaurants and hotels that serve shark fin soup would also fail to match the amount of money that they had previously made by offering the delicacy.
A ban on shark finning would cause a loss in profits. However, it is better for the country overall. However, a ban is only effective when there is cooperation from the people involved. In order to get the participation we need, we need to provide incentives to stop finning. For instance, instead of relying on shark fin soup to produce profits, efforts should be made towards promoting tourists, as sharks provide a high value for ecotourism (Ward-Paige et al., 2012, p. 197). This would allow for an industry of long term profits to be established, establishing more wealth for the countries that employ them.
Ecotourism is tourism centered around natural environments, especially those that involve threatened wildlife. This practical substitute would allow the current decrepit shark populations to grow back to a sustainable number that is optimal for the ecosystem by allowing tourists to watch them. As Ward-Paige et al. (2012) states, “These activities provide the opportunity for public participation in scientific monitoring” (p. 1859). These sharks can not only be watched for aesthetic pleasure, but their numbers can be observed to keep track of their populations as well. Additionally, upon allowing for the apex predator to regain healthy levels in the environment, all other fished populations would be restored due to the revival of ecological balance.
Ecotourism provides an outlet for economic gain for the hotels and restaurants that would be losing profit from halted shark fin operations. With ecotourists needing a place to stay and eat, these hotels and restaurants will be making easy money. This gain is much more sustainable economically simply because the sale of shark fin soup cannot last past the extinction of the species. Additionally, ecotourism promotes the conservation of these creatures, meaning money will come in for years to come. In the long-term, it will generate more money because tourists will keep coming and supporting local economies year after year. The fishermen, in countries supplying the fins like Costa Rica, who stand to lose the most can recuperate by using their vessels for tours rather than fishing. In the case of interested participants, government programs in the countries where the removal of shark finning would be a major loss can be developed with monetary start up aid for fisherman planning to convert their operations into tourism programs. It may not make as much immediate money as finning, but ecotourism does generate a significant amount of money in the long term for these individuals. In South Africa where there is an abundant amount of ecotourism centered around sharks, the cost for one session in a shark cage is about $150.00 USD per person, according to prices listed on sharkcagediving.net. This price can sharply increase depending on the area and if actual diving is involved. Again, this will keep making money, as opposed to shark finning which will only be a viable option for a limited number of years. To begin this shift into ecotourism, government incentives can be offered to shark finning vessels that are renovated into tourist vessels.
Unfortunately, traditions will have to change to allow this to happen. However, a quick glance at human history demonstrates that traditions are always changing. For instance, fur coats made from the hides of many different types of rare or endangered animals used to be a sign of wealth and luxury in the early 20th century, a standard that is no longer a cultural trend in society today. There is nothing to stop shark finning from being any different. In fact, this cultural turn-around has already begun in China. China’s National People’s Congress proposed a ban on serving shark fin soup at government events (Flannery 2014). The main person responsible for the proposal, Guo Guangchang, is an influential billionaire. This is a great step in the right direction because as an elite leader in China, he is in a prime position to lead by example. This appears to be making a difference; there is an estimated 50-70% drop in the demand for shark fins since the National People’s Congress confronted the issue (Flannery 2014). Despite this decrease, more needs to be done before we actually see shark species recover. While changing traditions is often a lost cause on older members of the population, children are more open to new ideas. If children can be educated about the devastating effects that the loss of sharks has on the ecosystem, as well as the cruelty of finning itself, preferably in school, then they can begin advocating for the abolishment of the shark fin trade as well. Future generations of Asian children will be growing up with the idea that social traditions must change in order for the greater good to prevail.
In order to improve the relationship between the environment and humanity, the idea of ecosystem preservation must be promoted. Preserving and protecting the populations of sharks in the environment must be tied in with society’s important resources, like the economy. From these issues comes the idea of ecotourism, a pursuit that not only boosts countries’ economies but also allows for preservation of the environment and its inhabitants. Globally, ecotourism generates over 800 billion dollars every year (Sustainable Travel & Ecotourism, 2014). Shark fins boost the Asian economy by only 2 billion dollars annually, with that number declining each year due to the lack of available sharks. With Asia’s access to shark populations, the potential for an ecotourism industry is there as well, one that could easily make over 2 billion dollars sustainably and repeatedly. More importantly, this ecotourism tactic can be employed in places like Costa Rica, that provide a significant amount of the shark finning supply (Personal Communication, Evan Ross). Like how park rangers in Africa are generally ex-poachers, we can employ shark fisherman in other countries for ecotourism purposes in their respective waters (Personal Communication, Evan Ross).
Shark populations have more value when they are sustained and managed properly. The value of the fins on one shark can be easily recovered after a relatively short period of time. Fishermen and other industry workers dependent on shark fins in countries responsible for most of the shark fin supply can easily make the switch towards ecotourism by converting their boats and services into shark tour operations. Ecotourism, in terms of sharks, would include cage dives and shark sightseeing similar to whale watching in the United States. Though fishing is an industry for skilled workers, their skills can be utilized by catching fish used for shark baiting, releasing the bait, operating the boat for the tours, or by joining the growing industry of fish farming. Government incentives, including aid with job placements and aid for starting an ecotourism company, for those willing to leave the shark finning industry could be put in place in these countries. The preservation of the apex predator in Asia’s local ecosystem would also ensure that their other marine consumption sources would be in a perpetual boom by ensuring the natural order of the ecosystem and disallowing for any decline in prey species.
The youth of Asia must be educated on the global impact that the cultural indulgence of shark fin soup makes. As stated before, government supported documentaries, environmental education programs, and advertisements will be responsible for educating Asia’s next generation. The youth of Asia will wean Asia’s future dependence on shark fin soup as a social status indicator, by devaluing the delicacy through understanding its global consequence. The Asian public will be educated on the impacts of shark fin soup and follow the current trend away from the soup through government and celebrity endorsements, like that of Guangchang, which has already been shown to reduce the public’s demand for shark fin soup. Tourists will also be educated on the effects that their food tourism takes on the ecosystem, and how partaking in sustainable tourism practices will ensure a better endgame for all stakeholders involved. The world is always changing, with cultural traditions changing with it. There is an obvious personal benefit in the long term sustain of shark populations in Asia that no one can deny; it is human nature to tap the untapped potential that awaits.
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